Analytics with Alison: Digging into Transitional Play

In the game of hockey, moving the puck up and down the ice is obviously important. As a team, if you’re not in your offensive zone, you want to get there as quickly as possible. At the same time, you want to make it as challenging as possible for your opponent to get to their area of attack.

We call all of this activity “transitional play,” and it includes events like zone exits (getting out of your defensive zone) and zone entries (getting into the offensive zone). Historically, the most common ways to analyze exits and entries is by volume (how many) and by success rate (did you get to where you wanted to go with possession of the puck?).

But now over at HockeyViz.com, Micah Blake McCurdy has added a new wrinkle. His work on Blueline Transversals looks at how quickly players create or allow transitional play and the overall impact that has on advancing the puck for their team. How does understanding that help us?

“The way teams are playing now it’s so dynamic,” Vince Dunn said. “Offensively you can create all the way from your own end. It’s about finding that first play to get (the puck) to the forwards or to get it moving ahead and finding your ice to jump in the play.”

So how do Kraken players contribute to speeding up or slowing down transitional play?

Let’s dig in.

First, it’s important to remember that the ask of every player on a team is different. So how a skater performs in each of these measures isn’t an evaluation of the player overall, it’s a look at how they perform a certain task within the role given to them by the coaching staff.

“We have to structure (the design of offensive transitional play) to the makeup of our lines,” Dave Hakstol said. “We have a couple lines we want attacking with possession when it’s given…(and we have a) couple lines looking (to) forecheck and looking for opportunity off of that.”

Given that context, let’s start with where Hakstol was focused, offensive transition. Using McCurdy’s work, that’s exit offense (leaving your defensive zone) plus entry offense (entering your attack zone).

Offensive Transition

In the visual below from Hockey Viz, the blue shading represents the distribution of all NHL skaters. Then, the Kraken skaters are marked by name as to where they fall within that. Each axis is “time” with the X-axis representing getting out of the defensive zone into the neutral zone, and the Y-axis representing getting into the offensive zone. The smaller the number (including negative values) the faster you are compared to league average.

Overall, this is a nice distribution for Seattle. It’s not surprising to see that, outside Will Borgen and Jamie Oleksiak, most of the faster entry players are forwards (as that is their role) while defensemen aren’t going to be as aggressive in that behavior. Yanni Gourde is one of the most active in getting the puck out of the zone quickly and recently added Karson Kuhlman is chipping in there, too. Hakstol also noted the abilities of Jordan Eberle and Jared McCann in this area of play, we can see that here as well.

It is worth noting that McCurdy found score state has an impact on transition play. When trailing, a team will offensively transition faster, and the Kraken have trailed for 1337:58 this season (per Natural Stat Trick) so we may be seeing that influence increasing speed here, also.

Now let’s look at offense from a different angle. McCurdy found that strongest correlation within transition play is between the ability to enter the attack zone and the ability to prevent opponents from doing the same.

Entry Offense vs. Entry Defense

Once again, the visual below shows how the league performs as a whole with each Kraken skater identified within that distribution.

What do we see? When Colin Blackwell or Borgen are on the ice, everything is happening FAST. While Adam Larsson is very effective at slowing the game down. Players like Gourde, Kuhlman, Austin Czarnik, and Alex Wennberg can bring a bit of speed on the entry while slowing down opponents on their attempts at the other end of the ice.

“Wennberg is really good at reading what’s in front of him,” Hakstol said.

Let’s lean a little bit more into the defensive side of things. Like how players stack up in terms of defending both exit and entry attempts by opponents.

Entry Defense vs. Exit Defense

Just as we saw forwards lead the way in offensive movement, defenders are more prominent here (in addition to Wennberg and the “tenacious” Gourde, as Hakstol describes him).

Dunn is the most impactful in slowing opponents trying to get out of their own zone, and Larsson as we saw before, makes players work to get into the attack zone with the puck. What goes into that?

“I think the way that most teams play you want to be pressuring guys that are coming into your own zone especially if you have defensive guys there to support you,” Dunn said. “We try to deflect guys to the outside. For me, it’s about supporting my partner and the forwards who are putting pressure on defensively and when the opportunity is there to confront guys (at the blue line), you try to slow them down.”

Overall, Hakstol has been pleased with how his team has been developing their transition game, and thanks to McCurdy’s work we can see how each Kraken skater contributes to Seattle’s ability to move the puck up the ice and/or prevent opponents from doing the same.

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